The New Brand of Jesuit Universities

How schools are trying to attract students while staying true to their Catholic traditions

Loyola University Chicago (Wikimedia)

A Jesuit priest and a comedian walk into a bar…

That may sound like the beginning of a Catholic joke, but it actually happened (and happens) regularly. The only difference is that the setting is a newsroom, not a drinking hole. Stephen Colbert, the famous comedian and host of CBS’ Late Show, and Jesuit Father James Martin, editor at large of America magazine, regularly hash out the nuances of the Catholic religion in modern times.

In the likeness of Martin and Colbert, Pope Francis uses modern media to address points of tension in the Catholic Church. Having held the institution’s highest office for nearly two years, the pope’s approach is quite different than that of his predecessors. His strategy is, in many ways, "rebranding" the Church for a new audience and providing an updated image for its most ardent constituents—the very same thing Jesuit universities are doing across the country.

What is left at stake for both Pope Francis and Jesuit universities is whether this rebranding attenuates the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church. As a branch of Catholic education, Jesuit universities are required to fall in line with the Church as a whole and with the requests of the local bishop. Yet, similar to secular colleges and universities, they are also places where young adults are encouraged to think critically and to explore variations in religious ideology. The balance of mission, identity, and modern times—and whether that balance negates the central principles of Jesuit and Catholic education—is what lies at the root of the tensions present for these schools.

Of the 251 Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S., 28 are run by the Society of Jesus. The Society of Jesus, commonly known as the Jesuits, was founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola in 1540 and is the largest male religious order of priests and brothers within the Catholic Church. Though St. Ignatius didn’t originally intend to establish schools for the broader public, the Jesuit order quickly became recognized throughout the world for its achievements in education, community service, and the sciences. From the get-go, the Jesuits started compiling a number of documents to outline the kind of education the order would provide. These documents would later become the foundation of what’s known as Ratio Studiorum, the official plan of Jesuit education, published in 1599.

Today’s Jesuit colleges vary greatly in size and extend across the U.S., though they’re most concentrated in the Northeast and along the West Coast. Loyola University Chicago is the school with the largest undergraduate population, with roughly 10,000 students enrolled.* Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia is the smallest, serving approximately 1,200 undergrads. Other well-known Jesuit schools include Fordham University, Boston College, and Georgetown University."

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On February 26, 2014, in the dimly lit Walker’s Pub on Regis University’s main campus, a group gathered with more than Irish-Catholic fellowship on the brain. Students, faculty, and staff came to voice their concerns about Regis’ Catholic identity, confronted with the question "Is Regis Catholic Enough?"

"As compared to what?" asked Randolph Lumpp, a professor of religious studies at Regis. "I suppose part of that would depend to some degree on what you mean by Regis. Are we talking about students, or the faculty, or the groundskeepers, or the constitution of the corporate foundation?"

Lumpp started at Regis in 1959 as a freshman, and he began teaching at the university in 1972. When he was a student at Regis, almost every instructor was Jesuit and the university was open only to men. The few women on campus were those in religious orders. But times have changed. No specific religious affiliation is required to attend a Jesuit college; at a majority of the schools, between a third and two-thirds of the students self-identify as Catholic.

"A university doesn’t exist in a vacuum," Lumpp said. "It is a reflection of the world in which it exists. The world in which Regis exists is really different from what it was like in 1959."

A fourth of the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities currently have lay presidents, and the number of Jesuit priests who are active in everyday operations at the schools isn’t nearly as high as it once was. Meanwhile, the schools are scrambling to stay on top of enrollment numbers necessary to retain their endowments. In other words, as they endeavor to meet the needs of their stakeholders, Jesuit universities face greater financial pressure and a nationwide decline in religious affiliation.

"There is a tension between desire to be strongly identified as Jesuit and Catholic and the desire to respond effectively to the call to be a contemporary, competent university in North America," said Thayne McCulloh, president of Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. "How do you accomplish that without compromise?"

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There is little question that the religious landscape of Millennials—those born after 1980—is changing. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, nearly three out of every 10 Millennials don’t affiliate with a religion, one of the highest rates in the last 25 years. Another Pew study, released one year prior, found that only about a fourth of American Catholics consider themselves strongly tied to their faith. Self-reported weekly church attendance within that group dropped by more than 30 points in the last four decades, from 85 percent in 1974 to 53 percent in 2012.

"A typical kid in the U.S. has one toe in his Catholic upbringing and a foot solidly planted in the secular American culture," said Rev. Michael Sheeran, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities.

While traditional religious affiliation is declining, an interest in spirituality among Millennials is not. Millennials are more likely to combine ideas from multiple religious traditions, adopting ideas from Christianity, Buddhism, Shamanism, and other schools of thought, for example. The Pew findings suggest that though Millennials pray as often as their elders, they may not do so within a single religious affiliation. Sheeran suggests that this is where Jesuit universities can ask deeper questions: They can invite students to ask questions of meaning and purpose, without the fear of appearing too religious. For example, Jesuit universities offer retreat programs and opportunities for spiritual growth, both in the classroom and as a part of campus ministry programs.

"The last thing you worry about is whether they are making a religious quest," Sheeran said. Instead, "Are they asking the ‘meaning questions’? What we are doing is invitation Catholicism versus command Catholicism. We invite them where they are and we invite them to go deeper."

One of a Jesuit university’s academic objectives is to help students think critically; students may take courses in feminist theology, Christian metaphysics, Buddhism, and sex and gender. The purpose of this coursework is not to make a student think one way or another but to provide the framework from which they can make their own decisions.

Today’s young adults, according to recent studies, are fulfilling their psychosocial need for a sense of community—a role historically carried by religion—through different means. These connections happen through activities such as sporting events and concerts, for example, or virtual venues such as social media. These arenas offer new ways for people to volunteer and get involved in their communities.

Paul Neary, a 2014 Regis graduate, attended the school because he figured it would challenge him intellectually and help him become a "man for others," a phrase used at many Jesuit universities to encourage a commitment to service and social justice. Neary was less concerned about aspects of the faith on campus.

"I never thought Regis University was going to replace church; I never thought Regis University was going to replace my parents," he said. "I would rather [the university] bring in atheists and teach them with Catholic values than alienate people of other religions to have a ‘more Catholic’ school."

Jesuit schools regularly surpass their secular counterparts in the number of service hours contributed by students per capita. One of the central tenets of Ignatian Spirituality is service to and with others; a concern for the poor and marginalized and a belief in social justice underpin many of the extracurricular activities on campus. Jesuit schools send high numbers of graduates into the Peace Corps and other service programs throughout the U.S. and around the world.

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In 2010, the Jesuit colleges association developed a tool designed to help individual universities assess whether they’re fulfilling their duties as Jesuit and Catholic institutions. The framework identifies seven characteristics of Jesuit higher education; the list balances academic pursuit, commitment to mission, Catholic campus culture, and service. Among the new tool’s guidelines: "Catholic and Jesuit, descriptors that define us as an institution, are not simply two characteristics among many. Rather they signify our defining character, what makes us uniquely who we are." (The 28 universities’ presidents—both Jesuit and lay—serve on the association’s board, while five additional staff members support its operations.)

As a result, several Jesuit colleges have recently undergone major rebranding campaigns, initiatives that have typically endeavored to retain the schools’ Catholic foundations while shifting marketing strategies to appeal to broader student populations. Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri is one such school, which last year removed the word "Jesuit" from the university tagline but retained an image of the campus chapel on its website. Additionally, "Catholic" appears in the school’s mission and vision, as well as the criteria used in the rebranding process.

"Our Catholic, Jesuit tradition is reflected in everything we do—from the way we talk about our mission in marketing pieces, to the way we interact with one another, to the way we develop leaders" said Lauren Hannawald, Rockhurt’s director of marketing.

Regis also recently launched a new brand campaign. While both "Jesuit" and "Catholic" are listed as keywords for marketing materials, neither term appears in the school’s definition or its brand platform.

"We hide the word ‘Catholic’ from prospective students," said Traci McBee, who helps oversee fundraising efforts at Regis University. "We focus on the Jesuit piece rather than the Catholic piece. We’re able to transform a little quicker because we are not waiting for the archbishop to give us permission. We don’t have to ask the Pope when we want to make changes."

But some administrators, such as Gonzaga’s McCulloh, take a different stance. A common misconception, according to McCulloh, is that a Jesuit university is different from a Catholic university.

A university is recognized as "Catholic" if it falls inline with the teachings of the Church as articulated in Pope John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop’s supplemental documents. Though Jesuit universities are listed as Catholic universities, certain advocacy groups disagree that this is the case. For example, the Cardinal Newman Society each year produces The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College, which outlines the schools it feels best uphold Catholic identity on campus. Rarely does a Jesuit university make the list.

But "the Jesuits are completely and wholly a part of the Church," said McCulloh, who feels it’s important that he stay closely connected to the bishop and the local church. "There is a living, dynamic relationship of the Society and the Church of which it is a part." Still, it’s ultimately out of the university’s hands as to whether it retains its Catholic identity, he said; it’s up to the Catholic Church.

Sean Daru, a 2014 Regis graduate from Denver, sought a Catholic education and needed to stay close to home for family reasons. Regis was his only option. "It is different in very meaningful and obvious ways," Daru said. "Some of those differences are good and necessary. And some of those differences aren’t. While, undoubtedly, there are things that make Regis Catholic, there are things that are missing that are central to what it would be to be a Catholic university."

According to a recent survey administered by the Jesuit colleges association, about half of the students at Jesuit universities nationwide identify as Catholic. St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia boasts the highest number, with three-fourths of its student body identifying as Catholic. About two-thirds of Rockhurst undergraduates identify as Catholic. Regis, where a little over a third of the students are Catholic, has one of the lowest figures. Though some administrators say this is a sign of the times, others point to this as an indicator of an overall decline in the institutions’ Catholic identity.

"If we call ourselves a Catholic university, how can we be satisfied with that number?" said Regis Board of Trustees Vice-Chair William Newland. "This is consistent with the direction Regis is moving. We’re more concerned with the Jesuit way than with Catholicism."

Today, a handful of organizations, concerned about these changes, advocate for a stronger Catholic identity at Jesuit universities. The 1887 Trust and the Father King Society are two examples. Participants share concerns regarding events, speakers, curriculum requirements, and faculty appointments.

But McCulloh hasn’t been fazed by these efforts: "I respect the right of people to form groups, to create circles, to engage in discussion about issues that are important to them and those they feel ought to be relevant to us. I have actively engaged with them and I have let them know that I do not agree with their perspective."

"If they experienced it with us, no, they would not find perfection," McCulloh continued. "But they would find that all of the things that the Church and the Jesuits are asking universities to do are here and obvious."

Despite the shifting landscape, many Jesuit universities still face tough decisions when it comes to hosting controversial speakers and events on campus. Most, for example, have had to decide whether to bring the Vagina Monologues, a play about gender and sexuality, on campus. Others have received harsh criticism for hosting commencement speakers who hold views that differ from those of the Church, namely when it comes to abortion. This year, the Cardinal Newman Society identified 22 commencement speakers whose personal opinions did not align with the Church. More than half of them were people who spoke at Jesuit universities, a testament to the schools’ willingness to confront rather than avoid difficult topics.

"The Church has long looked to the Jesuits and to Jesuit universities as a place where difficult issues can be discussed, hammered out, raised and questioned, to be faithful to the Church and to do the hard work of trying to engage the world," McCulloh said. "The Church has never said there is a set of things we don’t want you to talk about."

* This post originally stated that Loyola University Chicago has the largest total enrollment at any Jesuit Unviersity in the U.S. Loyola only has the largest undergradue enrollment. We regret the error.